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Forensics: 'doing it once for every force's benefit'

The Forensic Capability Network's new CEO says she doesn't underestimate the task of transforming policing's relationship with forensics to a truly networked approach.

Jo Ashworth

Jo Ashworth

Date - 25th January 2021
By - Chloe Livadeas

Forensics is an area of policing that has been in a state of flux for years with forces at the mercy of a fragile supplier market and stretched internal capacity following the demise of the Forensic Science Service (FSS). As a result many have been scrambling to keep up with technology and struggling to maintain quality within their own forensic capabilities.

The fragmented approach of 43 forces trying to solve the same problems within forensics is known to be counterproductive, with some getting left behind and stuck in old, inefficient ways of working.

The FCN is supposed to remedy that and is built on the principle that doing things once in policing for everyone's benefit is a better way to go. That is easy to say but far harder to achieve given internal police politics..

CEO Jo Ashworth was the interim head since FCN’s launch in April last year and she was confirmed as permanent CEO in November 2020.

Before that she was double hatting as Programme Director for Transforming Forensics, a role she’d had since the conception of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) programme which is part of the same exercise to reform this vital area of policing.

Her new role is to create a network that belongs to all forces and aims to "enable better quality through validation and accreditation, strengthen the market place and enhance local services with new national capabilities". 

Ms Ashworth believes that kind of collective power in policing can’t be under-estimated. She’s the first to admit the scale of the challenge which lies ahead, but the potential benefits of it being successful are also significant. 

Her long background in policing also mean she has coal face  experience in having to balance demand for forensic support and public expectation with finite resources.

She was previously the director of Forensic Sciences for East Midlands Special Operations, and oversaw a controversial three-month pilot in Leicester where scenes of crime staff were only sent to attempted burglaries at odd numbered addresses.

Although that pilot was ended years ago the service faces the same difficult choices today she says, pointing out that the 20,000 officer uplift isn't going to be backed up with equivalent resources in other areas of policing.

“There isn't any uplift in forensic capacity across forces, the uplift is almost entirely around the policing side,” said Ms Ashworth “Now, I don't particularly lament that. I think it's actually a recipe to force us to work smarter.

“That’s certainly what the FCN is about now.”

She says her proudest achievement is the creation of FCN Commercial, which exists to try to stabilise the market through a long-term strategy that manages providers, ensures quality and a more co-ordinated approach to procurement from forces.  

For the past decade the repution of the external forensic market has been undermined by a series of events.

The collapse of Key Forensic Services in 2018, the Randox Testing Services scandal which led to a review of over 10,000 criminal investigations and 41 overturned convictions and the Eurofins Forensic Services cyber-attack in the summer of 2019 are three high profile examples.

But it isn't only external suppliers who are under pressure to put their houses in order.

The deadline for Crime Scene Investigators to become ISO accredited was pushed back from October 2020 to October 2021 due to coronavirus. CSIs up and down the country would have breathed a collective sigh of relief as up to 70 per cent of them were on track to miss the deadline due to the mammoth a task standardising their practises.

Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, a joint unit, were recently the first to achieve the “huge and unprecedented” task of accreditation for crime scene examinations. Ms Ashworth said: “We're really, really proud of them. They’re the leading light in that respect.”

But an equally big challenge for forces is the growth in the demand for digital forensics and the lack of capacity that has caused evidence backlogs.

“That area has got the greatest mountain to climb because digital forensics is such a fast moving area there's new digital tools out every day," she says. "There are new ways of people committing crime online and all of the things that come with that. And there are huge blockages in the system.”

So what are these blockages? 

“At the moment, all digital forensics units operate autonomously. They have to do their own validation, they have to unlock the solution to problems arriving daily, around new encryptions, new devices, new ways of of committing crime. And so every day is a learning day for digital forensics units and it's overwhelming and the demand is going up and up while they're still trying to tackle more complex issues.”

The FCN can help she says, specifically with child sexual exploitation (CSE) cases which represent the largest percentage of work for digital forensic units.

FCN is currently working on a project called CSE Automate which involves the design and development of an automated service for forces to increase their efficiency within CSE investigations.

Technologies that use automation to sift through an avalanche of images save time and reduce the mental trauma on investigators caused by over-exposure to extreme material.

These types of digital services need to be validated not just once but again and again overtime, she adds.

“That's why there's a burden there. So we're looking at ways that we could industrialise that process at a national level so that everybody benefits from them rather than having to do it locally.

“But it also will have an impact on other areas of crime because if you’re reducing the impact of the biggest volume, clearly you release capacity to deal with things like county lines and serious violence.”

She thinks there should be a balance between outsourcing and insourcing forensic services. Some areas of scenes of crime forensics work forces will always want to maintain internally.

“But if we don’t continue to really engage with the market we won't succeed because technology is the problem but it's also the answer. We can see the technology sector are almost certainly sitting on tools that will have a forensic use, but they don't know it.

"So we have to engage more with the sector, we need to make sure they know what our problems are, so that they focus their expertise and their investment.”

Ms Ashworth said policing needs to send the right messages to the market so that it can stimulate their investment and innovation. And that’s where the FCN comes in.

“Why should you abstract your precious resources from frontline capability and back office laboratory type services, when you've got an enabling coordination entity, which is what the FCN is, that could do that for you?

“So it's about doing it once for everybody's benefit and removing that burden from local policing. And this isn't removing service or expertise from them, it's actually enabling them to get on with what they're really good at, what their professional expertise is all about, and that is investigating scenes of crime, using forensic evidence to try and get the best outcomes for victims in the criminal justice system.”

But she understands that this requires a culture shift in policing. “It's hard to see beyond the border of your force," she says. "It's hard to stop what you're doing and stick your head above the parapet, and really have a look at what else can help you in a more collaborative sense.

“And not because forces don't want to. It's because they’ve not got the time and culturally forces have always looked after themselves, haven't they? The 43-force structure has hardwired that into policing.”

Her number one ambition is to create a “truly networked” approach to the challenges all forces are facing in forensics.

“As CEO I've got to provide that leadership that moves us from a transactional service, which is delivering benefits now, to a truly networked approach, which is at the heart of the Policing Vision for 2025. I don't underestimate the challenge but I'm up for it,” she added.

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